53. Mélusine by Sarah Monette
Author: Sarah Monette
Series: book one of Doctrine of Labyrinths
Publisher: Ace, a division of Penguin
Publication Year: 2005
Pages: 421, in the hardcover edition
Price: $10.99 CAD, $7.99 USD, £7.99 GBP
TBR Status: neutral. This was a reread.
I’m not going to summarize this book. Y’all know I don’t particularly like writing summaries to begin with, and I seriously doubt that I could manage a decent one here. I’d have to focus in on the wrong places, or pepper you with spoilers, or resort to cliché. (You know I don’t want to get sucked into the moral vacuum that is modern corniness*).
I’ll tell you, straight out, that it’s about two guys. Mildmay’s a cat burglar with a tangled past he’s pretty keen to get away from. Felix is a wizard whose own dark past has just caught up with him. And their story is bloody brilliant.
MÉLUSINE is fantasy of manners, a subgenre many people refer to as mannerpunk. I’m not terribly fond of the term, myself, but it does fit this book. I’d wager that when most folks see the suffix –punk, they think of safety pins and Mohawks, or those gorgeous guitar riffs, or angry lyrics. Those are all part of punk, but they’re not its heart. Punk, whether it’s steam-, cyber-, manner-, or with a capital P, is about challenging the dominant paradigm. It’s about looking at where things are now and seeing how they might be recast in a different mould. It’s about building something new off of extant foundations.
And that’s exactly what Monette does here. Her tropes are all fairly standard. Thieves and wizards are a dime a dozen in fantasy; I’ll bet most of you could name a couple dozen thief- or wizard-centric books without really trying. It’s possible, too, to read MÉLUSINE as that most common of fantastical stories, the quest tale. There’s a lot of travel herein. There’s even a search for a Stupendous and Magical Thingy, of sorts. If you look only at the surface, this is fairly standard stuff, and that's yet another reason why I didn’t want to summarize it for you.
Because it isn’t standard and it isn’t clichéd. I’ll say it again: it’s bloody brilliant. Mildmay and Felix are people, not stereotypes. They leap off the page. Monette alternates between their first person perspectives, and their narratives are so distinct that you’d never mistake one for the other. And their voices don’t just tell us their story; they give us greater insight into these two guys. We get a clear sense of who they are and how they view the world. Personally, I find Mildmay’s voice particularly appealing, (he’s hardcore colloquial, and you frequent visitors may have noticed that I like that sort of thing), but Monette also does some good things with Felix.
The quest, too, defies convention. The Stupendous and Magical Thingy isn’t some ancient artifact with untold powers. For Felix, it’s sanity. For Mildmay, it’s family.
And the setup is completely unlike anything you’d find in traditional epic fantasy. Monette, like Peake, is concerned far more with space than with time. The book begins slowly, with scads of little stories and sidetrips that build off of one another. It’s a slow burn, and it’s gorgeous. We get to know the characters. We become comfortable in their rather less than comfortable world, which owes far more to the Industrial Revolution than to the medieval period. Monette layers piece upon piece, drawing us in until we've sunk so far that we couldn’t possibly extricate ourselves. If you’re expecting something heavily plot-based here, you’re going to be disappointed. There are big, overarching things, of course, but they’re not what the book is about. MÉLUSINE is character-based fiction at its finest.
I will say, though, that I enjoyed it more the second time through. I mean, I bloodyfuckingloved it after my first reading, but the beginning is slow. I liked it right off the bat, but it took me a good two hundred and fifty pages to really click with it. I didn’t have that problem this time. I already knew the characters so well that I could just sit back and appreciate everything Monette did with them. Some books are just better when you know what’s coming, and this is one of ‘em.
If you have any interest in character-based stories, you need to read this. It’s brilliant.
(Oh, hell. I originally figured that this held steady at 4.5, but I'm in a generous mood right now and the series as a whole has blown my Top 5 list wide open, so I'm changing it to a 5).
1. I wasn't too sure how I wanted to approach this review. A pretty big part of me wanted to just gush at y'all for a couple thousand words, but I figured I'd try to pen a thoughtful, reasoned response to the text. I do think I managed to highlight most of the things that appealed to me on an intellectual level, but I'm not sure I've properly conveyed what this book means to me. I adore it. It blew me out of the water when I first read it last June, and it blew me out of the water all over again when I reread it last Wednesday and Thursday. I bloodyfuckinglove it with such an intense passion that the profanity is absolutely necessary.
2. Sevens play a fairly large role in this world, and they’ve been following me around for the past year or so. Seriously, I keep seeing them everywhere. It’s kind of spooky. I mean, I know they've always been there, but it's like they're written in boldface now. Huh.
3. I'm like Felix: I'm deathly afraid of deep water. I'm fine as long as I'm on top of it, (ie, on a bridge or a boat or whatever), but I don't particularly want to spend any time in it. I can swim, but I'm terrified of what I can't see down there. There could be anything lurking in the depths, and I'd never know it until it was too late. I do my best to avoid anything that might remind me of this particular fear, (including submarine movies, which collectively have my vote for the scariest film ever made, and documentaries about penguins and shipwrecks and things), but I just can't seem to get away from it since I finished this book. I'm not so happy about that.
4. The book also reminded me of some really good things, though. Mildmay goes to visit a friend of his during said friend's weekly break at work. I've got some friends who do the same for me, and I'll tell you, it's a damned nice thing to do for someone. If you ever have the chance to visit your friends at work, take it. They'll thank you for it.
(Well, unless they're swamped. Then you might do better to clear out).
999 Challenge – I chose this as one of my Rereads.
Once Upon A Time III – now I can add dark fantasy of manners to my list.
The Book Smugglers at Fantasy Cafe
Carnival of Bargain Madness
Fatter Dragons and More Porn (also covers THE VIRTU)
Fight Evil With Books! (also covers THE VIRTU)
Outside of a Dog: Kate Nepveu's Weblog (also covers THE VIRTU)
Thrills and Frills in YaoiLand
If I've missed yours, please let me know.
* nope. Still not old.